Both Sides of the Track

Lockdown is bringing people closer to nature.

I hear it a lot. Is it true? People are physically outside far more than usual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re developing empathy with our wild neighbours. What do people expect nature to be, anyway? After all, it’s not a themepark. It’s not a game, and animals and plants aren’t toys. Nature is exciting, fun, inspiring, unnerving and raw – written by rules much older than us.

Due to my village’s location in the Surrey Hills, I’ve had a front row seat as lockdown has propelled unprecedented crowds into the countryside. Many have been respectful of wild things; some most definitely have not. Visitors who ride bikes in ancient woodlands, gallop horses across wildflower meadows, pick rare flowers, drop litter, fly drones and light BBQs hurt the land, and cause real distress to local people who care for it.

So, I left the house very, very early yesterday, looking for nature as it’s meant to be.

Hillside path 19 May 20

What I found was this: wild strawberry, the sweetest, tiniest little thing.

Wild strawberry 19 May 20

Isn’t that one of the popular messages about nature – that it is good for us? We value it for clean air, working rivers, the ‘green gym’ and its health benefits. That defines ‘good’ as something with a physical or emotional impact. It goes without saying that these are of priceless importance. But there is more, I think.

A little further up the path, there was an altogether different fruiting bush.

Nightshade2 19 May 20

Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Devil’s berries, they call its fruit – bright black buttons of death. In Britain, it likes chalky hills like mine, and clings to almost sheer hillsides, beautiful, garish and feared.

Nightshade3 19 May 20

It teaches us something that no strawberry can, lessons that might not be popular in this day and age: that reckless bravado has consequences, that education is better than guessing, that small choices – as small as swallowing a berry – can have major outcomes that are not always possible to put right.

Like volcanoes, like grizzlies, deadly nightshade reminds humanity that we have limits, and should handle life with a certain respect and care.

That is not a bad thing. It is the health in the poison.

Somewhere Else

I live on a floor of chalk, and it is not even. Over most of my parish, geology dips and rises into pretty valleys and gentle hills, like a crumpled tablecloth. But the table ends on our southern border, where the North Downs fall with alarming directness into the lowness before the Greensand Hills, themselves a rim around what was once called Andred’sley, a wild, secretive forest of the south.

People did cross it, back in the day; perhaps they climbed up from it into my hills. Perhaps the 11th century church in my village gave refuge to a weary traveller or two.

Church 8 Apr 20

But travel is not the story of 2020’s people. My daily exercise takes me to the steep southern face of the Downs, but no further. You can see seven counties from there – or is it eight? – and a brightening patchwork of fields and hedgerows.

And a fox. I saw a fox. See him to the right of the jetty, just above the rock?

Fox far away 13 Apr 20

Hundreds of feet below me, and in what felt like a different universe – but, a fox. Out of the North Downs, yet observed by me upon them. I don’t find it easy to carry my 600mm lens, but I needed every inch of glass for this sighting. It took a drink from what I presume is a fishing or boating pond – apparently annoying a passing crow – and then trotted away into the evening.

A wild animal, somewhere else. Yet as I looked up, I saw that there was a second fox, only a few tens of metres away from me. Sitting on the scarp slope, and staring intently at rabbits.

Fox near 13 Apr 20

He didn’t catch one, but he did make me think. One of the rallying cries that I regularly issue on the fox’s behalf is that wildlife isn’t ‘somewhere else’. It is right here, fluttering across lawns, dozing by railway lines, trying to navigate our farms and roads, and even barking in the heart of our largest cities.

Wildlife is not only whales, pandas and tigers, special though all of them are. Amidst all the stress and suffering of these times, I hope that an awareness grows that our own local bits of nature are special and important. The vast increase in outdoor recreation does present some challenges when it comes protecting wildlife from disturbance, but by forcing people to stay local and choose footpaths rather than manmade entertainments, the lockdown may direct walkers into corners of their neighbourhoods that they never imagined existed.

Somewhere else, right here with us.

High Summer

Maybe. Sometimes. It was 38c, and now it’s raining again. But the sun still blazes whether we feel it or not.

Sunrise1 22 Jul 19

We have come to that languid not-quite-anything time, past the moment when the flowers are at their peak, yet some way off – one presumes – the edgy energy of autumn. Many birds are enduring their annual moult and are hiding, while foxes trot through the woods in coats so short, they look as tight as skin suits.

And then there’s the clouds. They cannot decide whether to tower over us or augment the scenery down below.

Sunrise2 22 Jul 19

The North Downs Way is arguably south-east England’s premier hike. This happens to be my local part of it, but the whole 153 miles spans the breadth of Surrey and Kent, following what is reputed to be the traditional route of pilgrims visiting Thomas à Becket’s grave at Canterbury Cathedral. I’ve walked a good distance down it, meandering between meadows and downland, vineyards and forgotten castles.

NDW5 24 May 2017

Thurnham Castle

History is a major theme. People have been travelling here for a long time.

James II

But the hills themselves have a past. You can feel a little bit of it standing on the high Surrey ridges – the view stretches from the Chilterns to Tonbridge and Hampshire on good days. It is the ramparts of something older, the crumbling bones of a giant chalk dome which was forced skyward in the same tectonic movements that built the Alps. If I had walked here in the early days, I would have been at the same altitude as Scafell. But time has lowered it, and scooped out the middle, and all that remains are the steep chalky rims: the North and South Downs.

The hills are old. This summer is not. It still has resting to do before autumn can greet it.

Khamsin in sunshine Jul 19